Why tagging Sammy Watkins makes sense for Rams

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Sammy Watkins' first season with the Los Angeles Rams was productive but unspectacular. He stayed healthy throughout but finished with only 593 receiving yards. He scored eight touchdowns but drew just 67 targets, a mark topped by 90 others in the NFL.

Watkins believes he would "most definitely" have a greater role in the offense if given another year to work with Jared Goff.

"I just think he got on a roll with the guys that he had during OTAs, and once a guy is used to throwing it to someone else, he throws to his guys," Watkins said. "It's just part of the game where you need more time, or maybe another year."

Watkins has now completed his rookie deal, and tagging him seems to make a lot of sense for the Rams.

The Rams gave up a 2018 second-round pick and a valuable depth piece, cornerback E.J. Gaines, to snag Watkins away from the Buffalo Bills in the middle of August. They would like to keep him for more than one season. But they would probably be hard-pressed to commit to anything long-term at this point, given his injury history and recent production.

One potential issue: whether to give Watkins a franchise tag or a transition tag.

Another: whether they'll instead have to tag safety Lamarcus Joyner, a pending free agent the Rams are hopeful of signing to a long-term contract.

The window to tag players lasts from Feb. 20 to March 6, and only one can be used each offseason.

The franchise tag pays the average of the top five salaries at players' respective positions. For wide receivers last year, that figure was $15.8 million. But if the nonexclusive franchise tag is used -- a more common approach -- the original team gets two first-round picks as compensation if it chooses not to match an outside offer. The transition tag costs less money, as the average of the top 10 at a player's position. But players are free to negotiate with other teams, and the original team gets nothing in return if it declines to match an outside offer.

Watkins put up pedestrian numbers this past season, but he still has the ability of a No. 1 receiver. And the market at his position doesn't seem all that strong this offseason, with Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson and Terrelle Pryor among the best of the potential unrestricted free agents.

Whether it's a franchise tag or a transition tag, however, both sides would be better served with another year together. Watkins, still only 24, can rebuild value after combining for 1,023 yards in 23 games over the past two seasons. And the Rams will have another year with a major vertical threat who opens the middle of the field for Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, all while letting the younger Josh Reynolds and Mike Thomas develop.

Sean McVay agrees the Rams can get more out of Watkins in 2018.

"Absolutely we feel like we can figure out a way, and I've got to do a better job of utilizing his skill set," McVay said. "Great hands, he can stretch the field. But you see the ability to finish on some of those underneath routes, whether it be the slants or some of those fade-type stop routes where you just see how strong he is and the aggressive-type hands to be able to attack the football. So, yes, I do think we can use him better."

Watkins had a big game in Week 3, torching the San Francisco 49ers for 106 yards and two touchdowns. He caught a 67-yard touchdown pass against the New York Giants in Week 9, then added 82 yards and a score in a close win against the New Orleans Saints in Week 12. Aside from that, though, Watkins was a bit player on an offense that helped the Rams lead the NFL in points.

Watkins' 4.5 targets per game was topped by Woods (6.9), Kupp (6.3) and even running back Todd Gurley (5.6). On balls that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, Watkins and Goff connected only 20 percent of the time, tied for 37th among 45 players with at least 15 targets in that situation.

Watkins estimated it took him about a month to get comfortable in the offense, but his chemistry with Goff never seemed right.

For the first time in his career, he had to embrace a limited role.

"I just played through those guys," Watkins said, referencing Woods and Kupp. "We call it playing through others' dreams, and that's what it's about. I feel like those guys actually helped me get better all year. I've been the guy that's been thrown the ball 15 times a game, but they actually helped me play without the ball and be a teammate. That's the best thing I think I learned this year."

McVay raved about how Watkins' presence dictates coverage and frees others. Throughout the season, he complimented the effectiveness of his downfield blocks and the aggressiveness with which he ran his routes, even amid long spells without targets.

"Defenses have to pay attention to the way he plays, the way he blocks, the way he runs with the ball, the way he attacks the ball," said Woods, also Watkins' teammate on the Bills from 2014 to 2016. "... Me and him work well together, we compete, and we feed off each other."

Woods, who came over on a five-year contract, has spoken to Watkins about his future and believes he "definitely wants to be here. He loves the organization, but it's also a business. It has to be correct, and it has to work in his favor."

The Rams are projected to have roughly $45 million in salary cap space. But they would also like to lock up Joyner, face an important decision with cornerback Trumaine Johnson and must separate room to make defensive tackle Aaron Donald the game's highest-paid defensive player.

Watkins credited the Rams' training staff and said this is the best his body has felt through an entire season. He believes he took his game to another level by learning how to impact an offense without the football.

He also likes where the Rams are headed.

"They're building something here," Watkins said. "Great players. I do also know there's a lot of free-agent guys and a lot of things going on, but that's not my focus. Everything will play out the way it should."